Lincoln and the Panics

By Roger D. Billings, Jr.
Professor of Law
Northern Kentucky University
Salmon P. Chase College of Law

Abraham Lincoln lived through three recessions. These “panics” occurred at regular intervals in 1819, 1837, and 1857.
While the 1819 and 1857 panics counted for relatively little in Lincoln’s life, the 1837 panic was significant. It is curious that leading Lincoln biographers have said so little about the impact of any of these panics on Lincoln’s life.

In 1819 Lincoln was only ten years old, and the panic had little impact on him. The panic of 1857 also seemed to have minimal effect on the forty-eight year old Lincoln. The economy might have been crumbling in 1858 but nothing Lincoln and Douglas said in their debates suggests they gave it much thought. It would have been unwise for Lincoln to engage in economic debate in any case, for Republicans were trying to attract Democrats to their anti-slavery cause. The traditional Republican response to economic problems, a call for higher tariffs and a national bank, might have offended them.

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